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Just to the Side of History

Creating The Mysteries

The art of theater director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar is enormous and embracing and currently evident in The Mysteries , a retelling of The York Mystery Cycle at the Flea Theater in New York City. This interview with Iskandar’s partner in creation, dramaturg Jill Rafson, is an exploration of the process of developing this multi-hour, multi-playwright, multi-play production.

Two actors on stage
The Mysteries. Photo by Chester Higgins Jr.

The Mysteries is formally described as involving “48 playwrights and 54 actors retelling the entirety of the Bible in a single night.” Over five hours long, with two eating breaks, actors wander through the audience without breaking character, serving and socializing and generally enhancing the experience on stage and off-stage. The 2013-2014 Drama Desk nominating committee gave a special award to Iskandar for “visionary directorial excellence” and “bold and strikingly original imagination,” in part for this production.

a man with his hands out on stage
Director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar. Photo by Chester Higgins Jr.

The dramaturgical underpinnings of this work were illuminated to some extent at a May 2014 panel hosted by LMDA at the CUNY Graduate Center on dramaturgs working as producers in developing new works. Jill Rafson, Iskandar’s dramaturgical partner on The Mysteries and the literary manager of Roundabout Theatre Company, was a member of that panel. I wanted to know more about this dramaturg’s perspectives on the project from the inside.  We met on an early June afternoon for a conversation in Rafson’s tidy Roundabout office populated with piles of scripts and decorated with production posters of shows from the initial seasons of the Underground.

Initial Connection to Iskandar and The Mysteries.
Rafson was encouraged to seek out Iskandar’s work by friends who had attended exit, pursued by a bear workshops in his midtown loft. She saw These Seven Sicknesses at the Flea in 2012 and was sold, even though, as she describes herself, “I’m not a person who loves anything that makes me feel like I’m being participated with. I didn’t feel like actors were using me for their own merriment but felt with them in a way I never could have predicted or articulated before experiencing it.”

a woman smiling
Dramaturg Jill Rafson. Photo by Martha Steketee. 

Rafson spent several years trying to find a way to work with Iskandar. “We tried readings of a couple of different new plays and we didn’t find the right one.” And then Ed called her out of the blue. “I have this crazy project that I’m talking to the Flea about, taking this entire York Mystery Cycle,” which Rafson notes she had never heard of, “and telling the story of the salvation of mankind from beginning to end in one long evening.” This was Iskandar’s counter-offer to the Flea’s idea of creating a simple Christmas show. Without hesitation, she agreed to join him.

Billing and Job Description
Rafson has highly prominent billing on this project: “Ed Sylvanus Iskandar, Conception and Direction. Jill Rafson, Dramaturgy.” Negotiated by one of her friends before the project got underway, this billing relates to the original battle plan that involved three “master” teammates—master director Ed with his team of assistant directors, Rafson as master dramaturg, and a master playwright “to oversee and make sure all the connective tissue between plays and scenes was created.” This “on-staff scribe” never materialized in quite that form.

Rafson became the “voice of continuity connecting to all of the playwrights” and they hired CollaborationTown, a group that focuses on devised work, to craft thematically related, interstitial, transitional material. “This ended up being the right thing for us. And it gave us a little more freedom to let each individual playwright maintain their voice,” says Rafson. “There was certainly a need for continuity over the course of the night, but it was about finding the right balance between the crazy quilt we wanted by specifically going after people with very different voices, and the need for the audience to be able to follow the story.”

Selecting the Playwrights and Delivering the Spiel
The idea was to have different playwrights tackle each of the forty-seven different Cycle episodes, as the individual York guilds have done since the 1400s. Ed and Jill decided to plan for an even fifty, and developed a list of dream playwrights.

Jill and Ed had fifty phone calls, each initiated when writers signed on, during which they described the same core ideas about the play, which Jill shares when prompted:

We want to explore not good versus evil but faith versus knowledge. We want to do a sincere exploration of these issues; we’re not looking to do a parody of religion or of having faith, because that is not sustainable for a full evening. Tonally we are open to absolutely everything. You can go for drama, you can go for action, and you can go for comedy—whatever is the most you in whichever story you end up writing. We want to put a big emphasis on God and Lucifer as dueling factions, and we would see a recurrence of that throughout the evening and always feel that pull. We don’t want Lucifer to be portrayed as evil; we wanted Lucifer to be the face of questioning, and the face of knowledge. You don’t have to write about the main character in every story. We’re just as interested in the character just to the side of history. And it’s not swords and sandals—we want to set this either in the present or just slightly ahead of the present.

Social Media Tools Made it all Possible
Playwrights were never all in the same room at the same time, and there was a fleet of assistant directors, stage managers and one amazing main stage manager with her own assistant stage managers. They had “a couple of social meet-ups along the way where we just invited everyone over for a big party at Ed’s loft to meet as many of each other as they could.” Doodle polls corralled the people, while Google Drive corralled the scripts. The tools brought the pieces to one another, and facilitated Jill working with each playwright individually. “I had fifty different voices wanting to converse in different ways. For as many mass emails they all got from me over time, I also had many individual and mini-group side conversations going on because everyone needed a different approach.”

Google Drive allowed transparency as well as collaborative development among the playwrights. “All of the playwrights were able to read each other’s work as it got turned in to me. I’d say: here are the episodes that have come in, and if you want to read them as you’re working, go for it. A playwright might say: I’m going to turn it in a week late, I’m really sorry, is there anything I should know? I would just say: go read the episodes on either side of yours if you want to. They exist now. And you can use that as a guide or you can look at them afterwards, but they exist.”

Timeline from Summer 2013 through Spring 2014.
Offers to playwrights went out in summer 2013, followed by conferences calls featuring the spiel and determining which episode was of interest. Final assignments came around Labor Day, first drafts came in October, and contradictions were identified in main character age disparities and story period. 

Auditions were held in November for a two-day December workshop in Ed’s loft that preceded the formal rehearsal process. Existing episodes were used as audition pieces, and Ed cast two entire companies. “We didn’t have the Angel Chorus then because none of the music existed yet, but we had seventy or so actors between the two evenings. And some people appeared in both companies but in different roles.” Rafson remarks “It was one of the most thrilling things I’ve ever sat through on an uncomfortable futon in my entire life.”

Rafson admiringly reflects on the grit of the actors. “For the actors, this crazy workshop was their callback—a callback process where they had some of the country’s best playwrights watching them say their words for the very first time, very attentively, for two nights, for about eight hours each time.” For the writers, this experience showed them where their piece fit. Rafson shares one playwright’s experience. “Bill Cain said to Ed: first of all, I know exactly what I have to do and I am completely starting over on my episode. And second, this is the most amazing thing I’ve been a part of.”

Rafson acknowledges that this was not a typical theatrical development process, and placed social and collaborative expectations on the playwrights.We laid out very clearly what the process might look like, and that it was going to involve a lot of talking, a lot of collaborating. It wouldn’t be: turn in your draft and run away. Some people turned in a draft and I asked for two or three tweaks and that was it. But with the vast majority of people, there was an ongoing back and forth from Labor Day to April.”

The Dramaturg in Rehearsal: Being Available and Standing Back from the Process
Rafson has a full time job with Roundabout and wasn’t able to be present in the several rehearsal spaces during the production’s rehearsal period. “I felt really remote from rehearsals a lot of the time, but we decided that I needed to use my time to communicate with the writers. So a ton of what I did was truly just correspondence. It was answering questions they had in general and about things they were seeing in rehearsal reports. Questions from the actors came to me from the assistant directors.”

The dramaturgical pile of research didn’t happen in quite the conventional way with this project. “We loved that our playwrights were all bringing so much of their own history to their take on whatever piece they were going to write. I didn’t want to influence that by giving them a set of common knowledge to draw from.” Using the example of playwright Kate Gersten’s piece about Joseph and Mary inspired by a Bachelor reunion episode, Rafson notes that imposing uniform perspectives and research on the playwrights could have dampened their creations. “I would so much rather Gersten would do her piece from her own point of view than give her research on dowries and male-female relationships in the period. We wanted a modernized setting, and we wanted the individual voices to shine through. I wanted them unfiltered as much as possible.”

The cast of the Mysteries on stage
The cast of  The Mysteries. Photo by Chester Higgins Jr.

Dramaturging the Immensity
Rafson glows recalling the magnitude of the challenge and the benefits she received in the process. “It was the biggest crash course you could ever imagine. The reasons I signed on were working with Ed and working with this number of artists at the same time—when else would you get that opportunity?” She continues, “I’m used to working with writers one-on-one, and to have this many different people to talk to about their work and getting to know all of their different ways of working, and then trying to put it together in a way that was what Ed and I wanted this night to be as a whole but also honored their intentions—it was the biggest thing I could take on and incredibly satisfying.”

Rafson’s dramaturgical instincts always hinted at further research, but she resolved that the script as it was evolving would be her focus. “I could learn more about the New Testament because it was brand new to me when we started this process. But what I ended up realizing was that my job was to be the dramaturg for these pieces as they were turned in. Once we had our base script, my task was to turn that into an evening that worked as opposed to trying to make the evening match the originals perfectly or trying to give people the full Bible. I needed to look at this as one script that happened to have a lot of co-authors. I just looked at how each piece could serve the next piece."


Rafson’s dramaturgical instincts always hinted at further research, but she resolved that the script as it was evolving would be her focus.


The Mysteries Future Life and Mythical Story Telling
Rafson knows that a full production of The Mysteries like the current Flea production might not occur elsewhere, yet other production possibilities exist. “I know we would both love to publish it, and to write some sort of piece about what this crazy process was,” she reflects. “We want to get these scripts out into the world. It would take a very ambitious theater to take this on as a whole. There are individual pieces that I think stand alone beautifully.” Other theaters, she mused, might consider producing the piece without the chorus, if that’s beyond their resources, or do it as three separate ninety-minute shows.

Rafson concludes our conversation with some reflections on Bible stories as literature and universal myths. “There’s a reason that we still tell these stories. Every religion has some version of this. I went in as a Jew who had never read anything past the Old Testament and learned about these other stories from scratch and approached them as just stories. I think that anyone can approach them that way. If you look at them as characters that grow and change, that’s the heart of this whole thing. It’s how each of these characters was given voice. I love that “The Flood” is written from the perspective of the drowning people. And I love that “The Slaughter of the Innocents” is from the perspective of the people who have to do the slaughtering and have a lot of questions about what they are about to do. That’s what makes this so special. It’s taking what you already know or have some knowledge of, and twisting it in a way that has respect for the audience and engages them in a different way.”

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